Nelsinho ready for high-stakes reunion
© AFP

There is not much that Nelsinho Baptista and Muricy Ramalho do not know about each other. For six whole years in the 1970s, the time they spent together at Sao Paulo, the right-back and attacking midfielder shared a room at team get-togethers.

No doubt the two exchanged views on what the future would hold for them at the end of their playing careers, though it is safe assume they never imagined crossing swords as coaches with a place in the final of a major international competition awaiting the victor.

Yet that is exactly the situation they will find themselves in at the Toyota Stadium on Wednesday, when Ramalho’s Santos take on Nelsinho’s Kashiwa Reysol with a place in the final of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011 up for grabs. Both successful coaches in their own right, the two have jousted on several occasions before on the domestic stage. This time, however, the stakes are higher than ever before.

“I was just saying that life’s full of surprises and that seeing is believing,” said Nelsinho, talking to FIFA.com following his side’s penalty-shootout win over Monterrey in Sunday’s quarter-final. “I can clearly remember the two of us rooming together. I was 20 and he was 18. It’s amazing to think that here we are 40 years on, getting ready for such a big game. I’m very happy because this is a tournament for winners and you only get this far if you’re a champion.”

The reunion has been made possible by Kashiwa Reysol’s maiden J-League championship win, which was completed only ten days ago and added yet more lustre to Nelsinho’s coaching record in the Land of the Rising Sun, where he won consecutive league titles with Verdy Kawasaki in the mid-90s and later had a spell with Nagoya Grampus.

Muricy knows a lot about football and he always demands the highest professional standards. I’m sure he’s looked at us closely.
Nelsinho on his former room-mate, Muricy Ramalho

“This is the third time I’ve coached in Japan and I’ve realised now that I’m respected here, something that I didn’t really see before,” said the 61-year-old tactician, who also guided Kashiwa to the second division crown last season. “That’s why I’m looking more relaxed right now.”

That new-found calmness is down to the fact that Nelsinho is enjoying one of the more stable phases of a career in which he has taken the reins at no fewer than 18 clubs in his native Brazil, some of them more than once. “I’m at peace with myself at the moment,” he explained. “Unlike Brazil, in Japan you know that once you’ve signed you’re going to see your contract through. And obviously it helps that I’ve won the lot since I arrived.”

That winning streak continued on Sunday when Ryohei Hayashi converted the penalty that took the home favourites past the Mexicans and set up a semi-final reunion with their coach’s former room-mate. Fresh from winning the Japanese title and recording back-to-back wins at Japan 2011, the first of them against Auckland City last week, Kashiwa are understandably confident ahead of the tie with Santos, as Nelsinho explained: “It’s been fantastic for the players to come up against different styles of football that they’ve never been exposed to before. That motivates us and gives us confidence.”

“One thing we can’t deny, though, is that Santos are favourites. They’ve got so much individual quality,” he said. “Monterrey were a quality side too, but I felt they underestimated us a bit in some of the things they said and I used that to motivate the team.”

Having known his opposite number for over 40 years, however, Nelsinho does not expect Ramalho’s Santos to make the same mistake: “Muricy knows a lot about football and he always demands the highest professional standards. I’m sure he’s looked at us closely and that his team are going to be ready for the challenge. I know Muricy very well and I know it’s not going to be any other way.”